The Foreign Office, one of the great offices of state.

The Foreign Secretary gave a speech on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as part of the Speaker's lecture series on great offices of state.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon William Hague

The Speaker’s Lecture Series was launched in January 2011 by the Speaker of the House of Commons with the aim to provide a platform which encourages understanding of, and engagement with, the work of Parliament and its Parliamentarians.

The Foreign Secretary William Hague gave his speech on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yesterday, he said:

It is an honour to give this lecture. I am grateful to the Speaker for his invitation, and to you all for coming to listen to me. It comes at the end of a very memorable day in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We have just hosted Her Majesty the Queen for the last event of her Diamond Jubilee, and have named in her honour and in perpetuity 437,000 square kilometres of the British Antarctic Territories as ‘Queen Elizabeth Land’.

Our country benefits enormously from the stability of its institutions, of which the monarchy is a preeminent example. And in my view every Foreign Secretary should consider it to be a central part of his or her responsibility to build up the capabilities and skills of the Foreign Office; because it strengthens our democracy and our country’s role in the world.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a special allure as an institution. It represents a restless and ambitious streak in the British character: an outward-looking and energetic strand in our national DNA that makes us hungry for success for Britain, concerned about poverty and injustice, and keen to be a positive force in the world.

Historically the Foreign Office is associated with many defining events in our nation’s history: with wars, conquest and the waxing and waning of Empire; with Great Power rivalry and intrigue; with competition for trade, territory and resources, with Treaties and the drawing of borders in distant lands, and with the defence of our freedom in two World Wars and the Cold War.

Indeed, I believe it is not possible to conduct foreign policy effectively without constant reference to our own history and the history of other nations. On my last visit to Kabul this year President Karzai and I discussed the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the site of so many of the region’s difficulties today. The President asked me if Britain still had the original Treaty of 1893 between Sir Mortimer Durand and the Afghan leader Amir Khan, which literally drew a line between the two countries and which he had never seen. I put this question to the Foreign Office historians on my return to London. They located the Treaty, the map of the Durand line and the public proclamation to the Afghan people that accompanied it. And more than a century after the agreement was signed, British diplomats presented copies to President Karzai.

We have a sense of conjoined history with many countries. I gather that a recent book ‘All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: and the Few we Never Got Round to’ asserts that Britain has in some way invaded all but twenty-two countries in the world over time. If this is true, it is not entirely comfortable reading. Yet I believe that our history as a nation of trade, culture and science has infused in us an openness towards other nations, and an abiding sense of our international responsibilities. It is intriguing that during the period of the greatest expansion of British diplomatic and military power overseas, the Foreign Office either barely existed at all as an institution or was in the early stages of its development.

A professional bureaucracy devoted to our nation’s foreign policy developed extremely slowly. Today’s Foreign Office was arguably 700 years in the making, between 1253 when we find the first record of a ‘King’s Secretary’ for foreign affairs, and 1968 when the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office were merged to form the Department I lead today.

Our network of Embassies and High Commissions is also more than 500 years old, from the appointment of the first British Ambassador to Rome in 1479 to our network of over 260 posts today. By the time of Elizabeth I resident Ambassadors had also been appointed to the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Venetian Republic and the Kingdom of France as well as to Rome. But by the late 1860s, nearly four hundred years after that first Ambassadorial appointment, there were still only five British Embassies and 19 legations overseas run from London. There were of course many more resident representatives in Asia and the Middle East who reported back to the India Office through Calcutta and later Delhi. But the big expansion of Britain’s diplomatic network did not come until after the Second World War. Today the number of British diplomatic posts overseas is once more on the rise, and by 2015 we will have up to 20 new Embassies, consulates and trade offices.

Like our Embassy network, our foreign policy bureaucracy also evolved slowly. From 1640 there were two ‘Principal Secretaries’ or Ministers with joint responsibility for home and foreign affairs; an arrangement that lasted for 140 years. Their foreign domains were divided between the ‘Northern Department’, covering the Holy Roman Empire, Holland, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia; and the ‘Southern Department’ encompassing France, the other Latin Countries and the Ottoman Empire.

There was no single Secretary of State responsible for Foreign Affairs until 1782, when the Northern and Southern Departments were amalgamated and the ‘Foreign Office’ came into being under the first Foreign Secretary Charles James Fox. Even then the foreign policy machinery available to him was tiny. The budget of Fox’s Foreign Office was £14,178. In practice it was much less than that, since more than a third of that was his own salary – no longer the case in the Foreign Office today. And it had a grand total of eleven staff: seven clerks, one chief clerk, two Under Secretaries – including the colourful MP and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Fox’s friend - and one female employee known as the “necessary woman”.

This title reflected the lowly status of women in the Foreign Office, a sad state of affairs which largely continued until after the Second World War. In accounts of the 18th and 19th century Foreign Office we find stray and usually denigrating references to female staff, such as to “the energetic little housemaid” who saved irreplaceable treaties by dousing a fire in the Library in 1839. It seems staggering now, but women were permitted to do only the most basic administrative tasks in the Foreign Office until 1946; and until 1972 female diplomats were actually required to resign if they got married. Britain’s first female Head of Mission was appointed only in 1973. We now have 37 female Heads of Mission, four times as many as fifteen years ago. But the number is still far too small and I am determined to increase it during my tenure.

In 1860, after more than 70 years of its existence, the Foreign Office still had only sixty staff, although the nature of the work had begun to change. Officials now advised Ministers on the formulation of policy, when before their work had been almost exclusively administrative. A whiff of those earlier days is conjured up by the references to the “prison allowance”, a daily bread roll provided to staff in the mid-1800s – presumably by the “necessary woman”.

Part of the reason for the slow development of Britain’s foreign policy machinery was of course the historical role of our monarchy. Although the Crown’s direct control over policy diminished from the mid-18th century, foreign policy was still open to a strong degree of Royal influence well into the 19th century.

If we think that diplomats sometimes get a bad press today, spare a thought for those Queen Victoria had in mind when, as the Government considered whether or not to establish an Embassy in Italy after unification, her Private Secretary relayed that “Her Majesty is much opposed to any increase in Embassies; indeed her Majesty thinks that the time for Ambassadors and their pretensions is past” – and that was in the 1800s.

You can also picture how it must have added to the woes of Gladstone’s administration, after General Gordon and his troops had been massacred at Khartoum in a shocking failure of British foreign policy, that Queen Victoria sent a strongly-worded telegram of disapproval to the Government, saying “to think that all this might have been prevented and many precious lives saved by earlier action is too frightful”. However justified, the criticism appeared to have been deliberately sent in un-coded form – and was therefore instantly “leaked” and devoured by the public.

The slow growth of the Foreign Office was also a product of the gradual evolution of ‘Whitehall’ itself. When my hero William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in 1783 he had no dedicated officials whatsoever. At the time whole government budgets were paid directly into the accounts of government ‘paymasters’ – the Ministers that is - leaving them free to invest the balances of public money for their own account , leading to expenses scandals dwarfing anything seen in modern times. And it was also entirely at the discretion of Ministers to employ members of staff, who were often friends and relatives, and to decide their pay and functions.

But Pitt’s premiership proved to be a turning point in the history of the British state. Robert Walpole is generally credited with being the first Prime Minister, partly due to his exceptionally long tenure of more than 20 years. However it was Pitt, who served for 19 years in total, who can be said to have created the modern job of Prime Minister through his use of the central power of the Treasury and his activism as a leader.

Lord North, who preceded Pitt, is often referred to as a ‘Tory Prime Minister’. In actual fact he frequently denied he was either a Tory or the Prime Minister. His daughter revealed that “he would never allow us to call him Prime Minister, saying that there was no such thing in the British constitution”. He would not always accept responsibility for other Ministers, did not drive forward their work, and many of them would have maintained their own relationship with the King.

Pitt was the first head of a British Government to direct government from the centre. He intervened in the business of other Ministries at times of crisis. He strengthened the coordination between them, elevated the role of the Treasury, created a simpler and more sustainable basis for the nation’s finances, instituted the first income tax, and ended much of the corruption in government. This centralising tendency was not without its critics. Lord Grenville, his Foreign Secretary, described Pitt’s second term in office as “a government of one man alone”.

However Pitt’s achievements demonstrate that the government departments require either strong leadership or the development of active institutions around them if they are to be effective. Ideally they require both of these attributes at the same time. This is reflected in the experience of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The 19th century produced some of the most powerful personalities ever to occupy the office of Foreign Secretary. George Canning held the post between 1807 and 1809, and again between 1822 and 1827. He is best known for giving Britain’s support to the independence movements in central and southern America – calling a New World into existence, as he put it, to redress the balance of the Old. This opened the door to an explosion of trade and commerce, in a spirit which we are attempting to reignite today by opening new British Embassies and consulates in Latin America for the first time in decades. Canning’s sad and truncated stint as Prime Minister in 1827 attracted fewer plaudits. His contemporary Sydney Smith said it was like seeing a fly in amber: “nobody cares about the fly…The only question is, how the devil did it get there?

Viscount Castlereagh was a towering figure as Foreign Secretary, and Canning’s bitter rival. They fought an extraordinary duel in 1809 when they were Foreign and War Secretaries respectively. Canning came off worse, perhaps because he had never fired a shot before. He retired from the field with a bullet through his thigh, although they both had to resign from the Government. This remains - for the time being at least - the last time in British history that Ministers have sought to settle a political argument in this way, although it is sometimes tempting.

Castlereagh presided over the redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 after a quarter of a century of war. This was the first time a serving British Foreign Secretary had travelled overseas in the thirty years that the job had existed. This was not surprising at the time. Pitt only left Britain once in his entire life – travelling to France, and taking tea with Marie Antoinette - yet as Prime Minister he disposed of huge forces and pursued alliances and treaties around the globe. This is hard to imagine now when it is not unusual for a Foreign Secretary to visit four or five countries in as many days.

The most memorable account of the Congress of Vienna came from the pen of historian and philosopher Egon Friedell. He wrote “the Tsar of Russia falls in love for everyone; the King of Prussia thinks for everyone, the King of Denmark speaks for everyone; the King of Bavaria drinks for everyone; the King of Württemberg eats for everyone … and the Emperor of Austria pays for everyone.” I leave you to draw your own parallels with European Councils today. The last word went to Napoleon, who delivered what he intended as a stinging Gallic retort, but which Britain might consider as a compliment: “Castlereagh had the Continent at his mercy…and he made peace as if he had been defeated. The imbecile!

On a more serious note, Castlereagh also persuaded the Congress of Vienna to make a commitment to the abolition of the slave trade, to put an end, as he said, “to a scourge which so long desolated Africa, degraded Europe, and afflicted humanity”. This can be considered to be the first human rights declaration in an international Treaty.

I would also mention Viscount Palmerston, who stands out for helping to stamp out the Atlantic slave trade, and for his aphorisms which have proved remarkably enduring. It was he who said that “it was a British interest to preserve the balance of power in international affairs”; “that Britain had no permanent friends or permanent enemies”; and that “the furtherance of British interests should be the only object of a British Foreign Secretary”.

The 19th century was also the period when the Foreign Office’s core functions as we define them today –protecting British nationals, supporting our economy, protecting our security and promoting human rights – took on an institutional basis.

The Foreign Office’s Consular Department came into being more than 200 years ago, with responsibilities formalised through the Consular Act of 1825. And its first commercial attaché was appointed in the 1880s. Today, we have more than 800 ‘prosperity officers’ in our Embassies overseas, all of whom can trace their work back to that beginning.

Some people might find it surprising that the Foreign Office’s human rights work also has its roots in this era. In 1824 the Slave Trade Department was set up to mount Britain’s crusade to end the trafficking of slaves by other countries, when the Foreign Office was only forty years old. Many saw this moral cause as an act of reparation for the sins of the past, since Britain had shipped as many as 2.8 million slaves from Africa to the Americas by 1807, when Britain formally abolished the slave trade. This became the defining human rights issue – as we would now think if it - of the 19th century, and for several decades the Slave Trade Department was the largest department in the Foreign Office. It led to efforts to agree a framework of international law for the seizing of slave vessels, and the use of Britain’s military power to suppress human rights abuses. You could call this Britain’s earliest humanitarian intervention, and out of it all of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights work can be said to have grown.

The oldest Foreign Office Department was the Librarians Department, established by Lord Granville in 1801. In my view this reflects an absolutely fundamental principle: a strong institution must retain and use knowledge and information as well as it nurtures its people. The historic Foreign Office Library was dismantled in 2007 and sadly we cannot recreate it. But our historians are now using the old Home Office Library in our main building as the home for their wonderful books, and our lawyers are using the old Library for theirs. And I am glad to say that we are once again placing proper emphasis on the contribution of historians to the making of foreign policy. Indeed, I am indebted to them and to their predecessors for some of the insights in this speech.

So the Foreign and Commonwealth Office rests on foundations that are as old as modern Britain, and it is one of our greatest assets as a nation. And to my mind, when a country has built up a vital institution in this way over centuries, we have a responsibility to strengthen its skills and capabilities all the time and to use it properly within government.

Democracy requires thriving institutions: in civil society to encourage participation and keep in check an over-mighty State; in our legal system and parliament to ensure that the law is upheld and the making of it respected; and within Government so that the public interest is properly served.

The power and role of a Government Department depends very much on how it is used and developed by its incumbent, and is constantly shifting. Indeed it is the nature of politics and government that any institution that is not developing and advancing will in fact be retreating and shrinking.

In the case of foreign policy, the strength of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a direct bearing on our standing and influence in the world.

If it is teeming with people who speak foreign languages, who have deep regional knowledge and cutting edge diplomatic skills and they can be deployed anywhere in the world then we have a competitive advantage in world affairs. If we allow those capabilities to wither and our diplomacy to shrink, then our interests suffer and our role is diminished.

It is no secret that I believe that in recent decades the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was weakened, and that it was wrong for so many Embassies to be closed. I am not alone in this view, which has been expressed across political parties.

So one of my objectives from my very first day as Foreign Secretary has been to ensure that the Foreign Office of the future is stronger than the one I inherited, and that my successors of whatever political party will be able to develop it further. Given the Foreign Secretary’s responsibility for two of our intelligence agencies, this must also include the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ being strong institutions as well.

There were a number of immediate things that I believed needed to be put right when I became Foreign Secretary. This included restoring the Department’s finances to a sustainable footing, increasing the emphasis on diplomatic skills, placing more emphasis on supporting our economy and making the decision to expand Britain’s diplomatic network. I am very grateful for the enthusiastic and professional way the men and women of the Foreign Office have responded to this change of direction.

But our task in the Foreign Office is even bigger than that. We are preparing for a world that will change dramatically, to help ensure that whatever lies ahead Britain can compete economically, remain secure, and contribute to peace and security for decades to come.

Long term predictions are usually wrong. But looking thirty years ahead, we do know that there will have been a dramatic shift in economic power and influence to countries in the South and East of the world.

We know that we will have to earn our living in a far tougher global marketplace, with our young people competing against millions of highly-educated graduates in some of the fastest-growing economies and most vibrant societies in the world.

We can expect it to be a more volatile global economy, in which we will have to work harder to seek out economic opportunity for our citizens.

And we can anticipate more Arab Spring style situations, in countries where political reform does not keep pace with economic development or social expectations, where inequalities deepen, or where resources are scarce.

On top of this we will face huge international problems including climate change, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, and limiting the risks of cyber crime and cyber attack.

To tackle these, we will need to work more closely with countries which are not our traditional allies and do not necessarily share all of our values. This will invariably produce strains on issues like human rights and freedom, since we will always stand up for universal values. We will have to get used to more ambiguity in our foreign relations, in which we work closely with some countries on particular issues, but diverge with them significantly on others. We are accustomed to this in our dealings with Russia and China already, but it will become a wider trend, and will call for skilful and principled diplomacy.

And we will also need to remain a global nation - indeed probably an even more global one than we are today, in terms of our economic interests, our security, and the needs of British people overseas.

So I believe that the need for the Foreign Office as a means of understanding and influencing other countries and protecting our interests is greater than it ever has been in our history.

And moreover I believe that the Foreign Ministries that will be best able to cope with the more uncertain world that lies ahead will be those that have flexibility, agility, and resilience hard-wired into their systems.

We have not reached the end of history as was predicted in the 1990s, or the end of foreign policy. Nor have we reached a simpler period of a world divided into static blocs.

Ours is a multi-polar world in which countries are meshed together by lattices of connections at every level: with powerful links between individuals, businesses, parliaments and civil society as well as between governments; ranging from the tangible such as physical infrastructure, to virtual links and the power of ideas. It is a far more complex international landscape, in which we need diplomacy to help understand the cultures and interests of other nations and to build partnerships with them. And it is a world in which power is diffusing away from governments towards citizens in many ways, requiring new forms of engagement.

In this world Britain’s interest lies in making the most of every network of which we are a part:

The European Union, with its great advantages as a single market and collective force in foreign, trade and environmental policy;

NATO, that has the ability form successful partnerships with countries outside its membership, and to play a growing role in our security;

The UN, in which we play an important role as a permanent member of the Security Council;

And the Commonwealth, which contains more than 30% of the world’s population and six of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

On top of this we have to develop ever stronger relationships beyond Europe and America; in Asia, Africa and the Gulf, ensuring that ours is a country that is advancing not shrinking, and looking at the world with optimism not fear of change.

The Foreign Office has to have all the best qualities of a network itself, in six principal ways:

First, it has to be a centre of excellence and ideas, not an island of administration. This includes being plugged into other networks across government, throughout our society and around the world, so that the best ideas circulate through it.

It is an overlooked truth that the Foreign Office’s influence in British government does not rest on personalities or the size of its budget, but on the power of its ideas and its skill in executing them. The creation of the National Security Council means that today foreign policy runs through the veins of the whole of Government in a way that it never has done before, which is vital given that many other Government Departments play a role in our foreign relations.

Second, we need to be able to attract and develop highly talented British and locally-engaged staff, and to retain close links to the expertise of our alumni even when they have left. We have now begun to do in a systematic way, since this is an attribute of any strong institution.

Third, the Foreign Office has to be good at every single part of its necessary functions so that the overall effect is one of excellence. No athlete succeeded in the London Olympic Games who did not attend to every single part of his or her performance, and institutions thrive on the same principle.

Fourth, our Foreign Office has to place a proper emphasis on geographic expertise and languages; the things that enable our diplomats to get under the skin of other countries. So we have increased funding for language training by 30%, have 40% more speakers of Arabic and Mandarin in our Posts overseas than only two years ago, and are building a new language centre in the heart of the Foreign Office that will have up to 30 classrooms and train 1,000 students a year, and we are also training more of our diplomats in commercial and economic skills.

Fifth, our diplomats should use the best of modern technology, so that we communicate with people as well as governments and do so as transparently as possible.

Sixth, in all that it does the Foreign Office has to be agile and adaptable, and capable of responding rapidly to a changing environment with what I call expeditionary diplomacy: the ability to be able to spot problems and opportunities and use diplomacy to respond to both in creative ways. In a world in which networks defeat hierarchies, the organisations that will thrive best are those that are flexible not rigid.

Now that we are building up this capability, we have to be ambitious about how we use it.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is unrivalled in its ability to react to crises and to operate highly effectively at the UN, as we saw during the Libya crisis. We will need this capability again and again to respond to the unexpected.

But we are also one of the few countries in the world with the combination of a global diplomatic network, military capability and international influence that means that we can actually try to resolve intractable conflicts and address vast global issues; to be proactive, not reactive.

Our Government is determined to retain a high level of ambition for what Britain can do in the world. Yes we want the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be a Rolls Royce of a Government Department. But we should not be afraid to take that Rolls Royce out and to race it around the odd corner on two wheels when necessary, even if that means risking the occasional dent and scratch.

That is why Britain is leading the way in developing and sharing capabilities to protect our economy against threats in cyberspace, and to secure a future for the internet that is open and free.

It is why we have launched a major new initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, taking an international problem that is generally regarded to be insurmountable, and proposing ways that we can reduce and one day hopefully end the use of rape as a weapon of war.

And we have set out to make a fundamental difference to the situation in Somalia, using our ability to mount complex diplomatic and security efforts involving many nations. We brought 50 countries together for a conference in London this year, secured a UN Security Council Resolution and new action on piracy and persuaded Somalia’s leaders to make political progress on the ground, all at the same time.

As these examples show, the modern Foreign Secretary has to define the national interest far more broadly than Palmerston ever did. We cannot define our national interest narrowly or selfishly.

Today what I call our enlightened national interest includes counter-proliferation anywhere in the world; counter-terrorism in most parts of the world; climate change being addressed; and human rights being upheld and expanded. The Foreign Office’s ability to meet these demands on it rests not only on political leadership but on its development as a strong institution and centre of excellence. In fact any country that does not succeed in ensuring that its Foreign Ministry is a Great Office of State that can navigate the networked world will not be able to defend their national interest effectively over the next 20 to 30 years.

That is why I am determined to strengthen the foundations of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so it will be able to defend Britain’s national interest and contribute to a peaceful, stable and more just world long into the future. I hope people of all parties will support this work, that the changes we have in hand will become irreversible, and that future governments will value and use the Foreign Office properly. I do so confident that a strong Foreign Office matters to our country and will support future British Governments of whatever complexion. This can only be good for the British people, and good for Britain’s role in the world.

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Published 18 December 2012